JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The three men spend chunks of their days in the mostly empty halls, lonely rooms and quiet smoking spots of Jacksonville’s Five Star Veterans Center.
Sometimes they seek out each other to reminisce over the triumphs and tragedies of war that only guys like them can understand because they’ve been there, done that.
They’ve seen craziness. Felt fear. Smelled death.
Other times, the images of battle remain locked in their heads, as fresh as when it happened years earlier.
Iraqi War veterans Patrick Petty, James Heeter and Richard Hobbs, all Jacksonville natives, are among a small group of men and women living at the center in Arlington while trying to transition into a society. They said they appreciate the public for being respectful toward them, but urge people to listen to their stories, too.
And listen hard, they warn. More blood is about to be shed. More minds are about to be twisted.
A fast-paced, deepening crisis in Iraq that led to the recent deployment of 300 U.S. military “advisers” in Baghdad will lead to more deployments to prevent threats against American interests abroad and at home, the men said.
The U.S. move followed the insurgency — known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIL — gobbling up turf to establish an Islamic republic straddling Syria and Iraq, along the way routing U.S.-trained and equipped Iraqi troops and coming within 20 miles of Baghdad.
The men said they could have predicted what’s happening now and are convinced any kind of escalation will be disastrous.
"It's a slaughterhouse over there right now," said Heeter, 42, injured in a blast that led to a brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder from his Army tour in Baghdad in 2005-06.
Petty, 31, served one tour with the Marines in Afghanistan and then two in Iraq from 2004 to 2006. He's struggled with drugs, suicide attempts, divorce, unemployment and low self-esteem as a result of his post traumatic stress disorder.
Petty said he gets stronger by the day and remains proud of his service. But he wouldn't wish the trauma he's been through on anyone.
"There'll be three, four times a night that I cry myself to sleep thinking about some of the things that I still see," Petty said.
Hobbs, an Army veteran deployed to Iraq in 2005 and again in 2008, said there's nothing the U.S. can do to resolve problems among a people who've been fighting each other forever. He said the threat comes not only from religious zealots, but from thugs and gangsters taking advantage of a weak country.
"They've been doing this since the beginning of time," said Hobbs, 28, who also suffers from PTSD and mild brain trauma. "We're just another target for them to blow up before they do their own thing."
Petty said he believes the nearly 4,500 troops who died in Iraq gave their lives valiantly, but for nothing. He said rather than send troops to fight another war overseas, the country should battle against street violence, including killings and other attacks in Jacksonville.
“Why the hell are we over there?” he said. “Let’s use the military in trying to figure out and neutralize what’s going on in America. We’re killing one another every damn day.”
But Heeter said the U.S. made a mistake by pulling out of Iraq and predicts that if something isn’t done now, the insurgency will use its growing influence to target America.
“We should go back and wipe them out,” Heeter said. “It’s not a matter of if [a terror attack will occur] it’s a matter of when. It’s going to make the World Trade Center look like a cakewalk.”
Hobbs has the words COMBAT VETERAN tattooed on his right forearm and proudly remembers fighting with and for his comrades. But he predicts there’ll be little glory for American troops if the war starts over.
“It’s a totally different world,” Hobbs said. “There’s nothing we can impress upon them [the Iraqis] to change that.”